A game’s score is so often disregarded – simply a way to set or modulate a game’s mood. We rarely notice it, and certainly have little interaction with it. FRACT is planning to change all of that, working toward a game in which sound plays not only a central, but a formative role in how the game is played. We spoke with Quynh – one of FRACT’s developers – about musicality, interaction and open worlds – and of where those things will meet.
Unlike other games, FRACT aims to put music not only as its core, but to utilise it as a central gameplay mechanic. As Quynh explained, FRACT “takes place in an abstract, open world that the player has to explore and decipher, to solved its music-inspired puzzles and bring its forgotten machinery back to life”. Drawing variously on elements of puzzle, adventure and digital music making, it’s almost like walking around the insides of a synthesiser, working your way up from learning how to shape sounds and to compose “little melodies”, before moving on to compose your own, complex sounds and harmonies. But these aren’t just there to listen to, but to use in order to shape and revive the stilled machinery of the world around you. As Quynh explained, this is a fascinating journey in its own right – simply making music and seeing how it changes and can change the (or “a”) world – “you don’t exactly know where you might end up. We hope to echo that somewhat in the game, by literally linking physical exploration with the exploration of different aspects of music and music making”.
Talking about the inspiration for what is a truly unique game, Quynh talked about how Richard, also of the development team, had been “inspired by some really pivotal moments” in his life, based on an early introduction to and exploration with tools and software like Rebirth as a means to play around with and make his own electronic music, having “a really lasting impression”. Fract emerged out of an interest to turn those tools – often “not necessarily the friendliest” – into a different context, “like a game, to make it more playful and hopefully less intimidating. He’s a strong believer that music and sound design, like interface design, are hugely underrated in games”. Quynh pointed out – confirming my own feelings – that music in games is something that, if executed well, “you’re not consciously aware of. Essentially, the better it is, the more it should disappear”. With FRACT, the team are seeking to take what is unconscious and to make it something conscious. It’s no surprise then that the team have been influenced strongly by electronic and ambient music; don’t think of elevator-style “musak”, but instead the complexities and irregular sound structures of Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada and Autechre. For anyone familiar with music composition, there’s a sense that this is the equivalent of Henry Cowell, who chose to thump and bash his piano, to articulate it as something physical, as something that could be manipulated, rather than as something that simply produced harmonic, pleasing sounds.
In order to achieve this, the team behind FRACT have developed their own “custom design engine” that “allows players to manipulate sound in real-time within the game”. As they grandly – and, it seems, correctly – state, this “forms the basis for a new type of gameplay and mechanics based on shaping sound and creating melodies, while simultaneously affecting other (i.e. more mechanical) parameters in the game”. Quynh provided an example; “players might work to reorient melody-emitting cubes in space to restore a broken piece of machinery. Players explore and have to move around the 3D environment to access the control platforms that allow them to manipulate these cubes throughout the course of the puzzle”. Moving each cube allows the player to manipulate “multiple parameters of the synth that is playing”, such as changing its pitch. Other puzzles see the player playing around with a sequencer “to discern the correct sequence that will ‘fix’ the machine”. Overall, the structure of the game and its puzzle “is meant to echo musical composition, from sound-shaping in earlier puzzles, to writing small passages or sequences”, and on to full blown compositions. It’s an exciting and curious mixture of forms and genres and techniques that suggest a whole new way of going about interaction in games.
One of the exciting correlates of the game is going to be the ability for the player to extract their music, even to upload it to YouTube, explained [name]; “we can’t wait to hear what people come up with!”. This led to me ask about importing, to which Quynh replied; “We’d love to be able to have an import feature, it’s definitely on the wishlist!”. This is another instance of how the FRACT team don’t wish to funnel the player down a particular path – even in most open world games, there is a caveat in the sense that there isn’t really a great deal of choice about how to affect the world. This seems to offer the reverse of that, in which the player “owns” the world, and is free to make a unique imprint upon it.
Because music-making is at the heart of FRACT, the team have been working collaboratively with electronic musician Alex Taam (aka Mogi Grumbles). Quynh explained that “having Alex join the team has really elevated the game”, with “Alex working on his vast collection of analog gear and then combining it with our synths in the game”. While the later procedures and techniques look tricky, one of the key features is – as Quynh explained above – the way in which the game will teach the player by instruction and demonstration as they go through it.
At the moment, FRACT is PC only. However, “we would definitely consider FRACT on console”, explaining “the only reason we haven’t is because we are literally a tiny team with little to no resources”. PC owners won’t have to wait long, however, with a planned release date of April (to be confirmed soon). On PC, players will be playing within a frame rate of 30 FPS and a minimum resolution of 1024×768, but that it will scale “well to higher resolutions”. From the screens and demos we’ve seen so far, it looks like a wonderfully bright, pretty geometric world – adding almost Tron-like visuals to the electronic soundscape.
Beneath its premise, there are lot of complex and exciting ideas, and also a great deal of promise. We’ll be following FRACT through to its release, so keep an eye out for future updates. We can’t wait to see how FRACT will turn out and play, and to create our own world-changing music.
Twitter – @fractgame